Perhaps having discovered that vintage 1964 Dusty album in 1979 put me in the wrong place to appreciate ‘Dusty in Memphis’. Maybe lining it up alongside the barn storming chords of ‘I Close My Eyes And Count to Ten’ released in 1968 to a Top 4 UK chart position isn’t the thing to do either although given that bit of information you might have thought somebody at Atlantic Records would have paid a little more attention to the proposed material they were shoving under her nose in the studio.
Producer Jerry Wexler is on record as saying that Dusty didn’t give her approval to any of the songs suggested for the album. Dusty says she approved two, ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ and ‘Just a little Loving’ and it shows. He also made her record the vocals to a backing track when it was common knowledge in the industry that Dusty liked to record against music played back so loud she couldn’t hear her own voice. Was she really the star of the show? Or just the ‘gal’ doing the vocals?
Either way, love it, hate it or indifferent I think Dusty would be proud to know that the record that scared her to death is now considered one of the World’s Greatest Albums, and is probably in a capsule being sent to the outer limits of the galaxy as I type.
But what of her legacy?
Much has been made of the twilight years in the US, the addictions, failed love affairs, the self-harming and the downward spiral into oblivion. Perhaps too much has been said in the mistaken belief that immense suffering cements your ‘diva’ status in the eyes of the record buying public, only in the case of Dusty most of that knowledge has come to us retrospectively.
Unlike Piaf (shoved on stage pumped full of morphine), Callas (scraping the high notes with a voice that was ragged and torn), or Janis Joplin (imortalised in ‘The Rose’) the tragedy that was Dusty was kept hidden by the love of some very stalwart friends so her destruction wasn’t a spectacle but like so much of the lady herself, a private affair. That she had those friends says more about the person she was than any discography.
Her ‘resurrection’ working with The Pet Shop Boys’ was no accident. Who wouldn’t want one of the greatest voices ever to come out of the UK to sing on your track, a voice that despite everything still had that haunting fragility even over a disco backing track? And who, whether you remember Dusty blazing her way through the Top Twenty in the 1960’s or not, wouldn’t listen closely and know they were hearing something special?
It’s easy as a fan to see no wrong. It’s also easy to dwell in the past and lionize the glory days. But perhaps it’s not so easy to remember that always under the hair and mascara was ‘Mary Bernadette O’Brien’ and that maybe as her life drew to its close Dusty and Mary finally became one, Dusty adding the gloss and stardust to plain little Mary and Mary, in turn, adding a humanity that saved her alter ego from becoming a monster. I don’t know. I wasn’t there.
But I was there to see her pass by one last time, along with hundreds of others and we all wiped our eyes and talked about her as if she was our friend. So maybe that was her legacy. Whether it’s ‘I Only Want to be with You’ or any one of a number of cover versions Dusty somehow reached out of the vinyl and touched people, deeply.
However I think it’s no secret that she sang ‘Quiet please! There’s a lady on stage,’ to such rapturous applause because that is what I think she was, first, foremost and finally. A lady.